Jet vs. school

In 2004, a United States Air Force F-16 jet fighter accidentally shot at an intermediate school in New Jersey. Fortunately, no-one was harmed.

USAF TSgt. Michael Ammons / Public domain

How could such a thing happen? Well, here’s a little lesson for aircraft designers: don’t use the same trigger for the laser sight and the live cannon, especially if the laser sight points to the side and the cannon points straight ahead.

November 4, 2004, a US Air Force pilot was on a training mission through a bombing range close to Little Egg Harbor Township in New Jersey. The pilot’s F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter had a targeting laser, and its software had just been upgraded. The pilot pulled the trigger for that laser, which was aimed out the side of the aircraft to a spot on the bombing range. Except that same trigger also activated the M61 cannon on the jet… which was carrying live ammunition… and was pointing straight forward.

(Side note: the M61 has been the rotary cannon of choice for American jets for several decades now. You may remember it as the cannon mounted on Will Smith’s jet in Independence Day, or if you’re a Transformers movie fan you might recognise it as one of Starscream’s weapons. I am not a Transformers movie fan.)

The errant rounds flew more than six kilometres, and then hit the roof and parking lot of an intermediate school in Little Egg Harbor Township. This could have been an absolute disaster, except for two things:

  1. This happened at night.
  2. School was out anyway because of a teachers’ convention.

A janitor at work heard the impact and called the police, but the rounds and the holes weren’t noticed until the next morning. The air force paid to have the roof repaired. I don’t know if the pilot passed their training, but I suspect not.

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